There is a real sense of excitement around PRO14 Rugby as we head towards the conclusion to this year’s campaign at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Part of it is the historic possibility of a first ever double of European Champions’ Cup and PRO14 Title by local heroes Leinster but when you dive a little deeper it is the longer term picture for the tournament as a whole that is setting pulses racing just as fast.
Sport for Business sat down with Director of Commercial and Marketing Dermot Rigley amid the storm of activity and there was plenty to talk about.
Sport for Business: This is the last year of the current TV deal and Saturday will be the last game that will be broadcast on Sky. How big of a change is coming?
Dermot Rigley: We have signed an initial three year deal with Premier Sport for the UK Rights and with eir Sport here in Ireland, both of which will come into effect from the start of next season.
Both deals provide a measure of consistency that has not been there before and a sign of how the tournament has really grown in status.
There are four major ‘domestic’ club competitions and we are now right up there with the Premiership in England, the Top 14 in France and Super Rugby across the Southern Hemisphere.
Our TV deals reflect that and both will raise the promotional and the production energy going into the games.
What will they mean for fans in the Republic of Ireland?
First off, one of the stipulations in the tender process was that we wanted all 152 games in the tournament to be broadcast. That is a massive undertaking moving from what has generally been three games in each round between Sky and TG4 to all seven.
Here in Ireland, eir Sport were very strong on the desire to become the one stop shop for Club Rugby. Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht are four of the biggest brands in irish sport and the audience they attract is one that is of real value.
eir already has 750,000 customers on Broadband contracts and the eir Sport pack is free to them so in terms of reach we are in a good place. The ‘free to air’ element in Ireland brings our long-term partners at TG4 into the mix.
They will have at least 21 games live and exclusive in Ireland while eir Sport will show every other game live and the TG4 ones on a deferred basis.
They also have the European Champions’ Cup from next season as well as the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the English Premiership so in terms of commitment to the sport and consistency for the fans they presented an incredibly strong case.
Is it a similar mix in other territories?
In the UK Premier Sport are putting significant weight behind promotion. They also provide the Freeview element and have a reach into 85 percent of households.
In South Africa, we have a very good deal with Super Sport, one that puts the PRO14 on an equal footing with Super Rugby.
How has the first year of South Africa’s involvement been?
It has been excellent. Obviously, there was a degree of risk in terms of establishing awareness both down there and here. The Cheetahs and the Kings came off back to back seasons so it was no surprise that they started slowly but as the season progressed they upped their game and the Cheetahs in particular became real contenders. It was great to get them to a semi-final in their first year.
We have worked on fixture planning to ensure that teams travelling to South Africa can plan in advance and achieve the best efficiency in terms of time and cost. From a South African perspective they have moved from a tournament where they were crossing 16 time zones to only two and that has been appreciated.
There is also a big South African diaspora in the Northern Hemisphere so all in all it could not have bedded down better.
And how about the Italians?
As the overall quality of the tournament has risen, we had 26 British and Irish Lions in action this campaign and close to 300 internationals, there may have been a fear that the Italian teams would fall behind. In fact, they won more games than ever before this season.
Benetton won 11 and Zebre 7, both of which were new records and the future for the sport is looking increasingly stronger, due in no small part to the influence of Conor O’Shea.
There have to be winners and losers in sport but there have been plenty of surprises, not least Connacht’s performance against Leinster in round 21and the PRO14 is producing the best quality, most exciting, highest scoring rugby in the sport.
Has the expansion altered the ownership of the PRO14?
No, we are still owned entirely by the three Rugby Football Unions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Representatives of Italian Rugby and the South African Rugby Union, including Rassie Erasmus, sit on our board and in time they may seek to become stakeholders.
The strength of the tournament, the deals with Guinness and our other partners, through the season and in the Final Series, put us in a strong financial position and we now generate twice the revenue for clubs in Ireland as the European Champions’ Cup.
The value of our TV deals has doubled in the current cycle while many other sporting properties are more static, albeit at a high level.
Is the Final likely to stay in Dublin now in future years?
This year has been great for the PRO14 with the Celtic Clubs and Nations doing so well.
We had first, second and third in the NatWest 6 Nations, the Triple Crown, Calcutta Cup, Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup but the reasons behind returning to Dublin as a destination final was that it represented the best bid in a time of great change.
We had superb interest expressed outside of Ireland but Dublin and the Aviva Stadium was the clear winner, made even better given the strength of Rugby in Ireland.
However we do want to bring our Final to all five participating countries and also non PRO14 countries.
We are a strong Championship both domestically and internationally and placing our Final in new and exciting territories plays into our DNA of being expansionist and always looking to innovate and be the best we can.
We will expand our reach in a very exciting way next year, the details of which will be announced very soon. We’re keen that all of our participating unions have a chance to host the Final and we know that’s what supporters want as well.
Saturday’s game will provide a fitting end to a great season for irish Rugby. there is a real sense though that from a tournament point of view this is less an end and more the beginning of something that could hardly have been imagined a few short years ago.
Limited tickets are still available through Ticketmaster.